If you’re a plotter—ie. the type of writer that likes to plan things out meticulously, step by step, before embarking on a story—you’ve probably experimented with every type of book outlining method under the sun.
If you’re a pantser—ie. the type of writer that likes to dive into the deep end of a novel and swim desperately for shore—you might disdain these methods in favour of explosive creative inspiration (Stephen King notoriously called plotters “hacks”). But what if we told you there was another way?
The flashlight method (or “torch method,” if you’re British—although this risks bringing to mind images of setting your poor story aflame and praying to primeval gods) combines the security of plotting a novel with the creative freedom of flying by the seat of your cosiest pants. Let’s take a look at what the flashlight method is and a few notes on how to apply it to your writing process.
What is the flashlight method of writing?
The flashlight method, or flashlight outlining, involves mapping out small sections of your novel or short story at a time—as much as you might see with a flashlight in a dark room.
It begins with a basic idea and a main character, and you closely examine just the first few chapters or scenes to get your story going. Then, you write a quick and messy outline for the next chapter after that, and the next chapter after that, marking out each major plot point as you go.
Think of it as though you were in a completely dark area and making your way with the help of a flashlight; you may not be able to clearly see your destination right away, but you can see a little ways ahead to ensure you don’t walk into walls or trip on any plot holes and/or dead bodies (depending on what kind of story we’re in…).
When you plan your story with the flashlight method, writing becomes a journey of discovery—but it also helps you find your footing along the way so you have fewer issues to go back and attend to after you finish your rough draft.
Why is the flashlight method effective?
Flashlight writing works because it most closely mimics the way stories take shape in the unconscious, while also keeping you on the right path. What’s fascinating is that for generations, writers have compared the process of novel writing and story structure to the idea of light within a place of darkness.
Dante equated writing Inferno to being lost in a dark forest and watching the sunrise.
Virginia Woolf is said to have compared writing to “walking through a dark room, holding a lantern which lights up what is already in the room anyway.”
Neil Gaiman said, “Writing a novel is like driving through the fog with one headlight out. You can’t see very far ahead of yourself, but every now and again the mists will clear.”
Maragaret Atwood believes that “writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.”
Even though the term “flashlight method” is modern, the concept of storytelling as a process of illumination is universal, because this is how stories are brought forth into the world. This means that by using the flashlight method of outlining, you’re simply allowing a story to come out naturally as you slowly make your way out of the dark.
Who should use the flashlight method?
The flashlight outlining method is effective for almost any kind of writer, plotters and pantsers alike. If you like having the flexibility to follow your characters and let your story surprise you as you go, you’ll find flashlight writing a comfortable, supportive way to explore the journey your words take from beginning to end.
And if you’re used to having the comforting boundaries of a detailed plot outline, the flashlight method will allow you to map out sections of your story while also giving you the freedom to organically discover new things.
The truth is, many writers are already using the flashlight method naturally in their writing process, even if they don’t realise it. It’s simply a newer term for a very old storytelling approach.
The only writers that might struggle with flashlight writing are ones who feel they really need a clear, detailed roadmap that takes them all the way from the exposition to the denouement. Some writers like to know exactly where they’re going before they even get on the highway—and that’s perfectly okay! There are a huge range of other outline methods you can use to plan out your story, some more detailed than others. We’ll look at a few of them below.
Benefits of using the flashlight method
Here are a few great things about flashlight outlining your writing process:
It helps you look ahead so you avoid plot holes later
It develops your story gradually, so you can discover the ending alongside your characters
It makes it easier to start writing, even if you don’t know the whole story yet
It allows your character development to happen naturally, rather than slotting your cast into predetermined roles
It’s a great way to get your creative juices flowing!
Challenges of using the flashlight method
Now, here are a few limitations to using this no-structure plot structure:
Unlike other outlining methods, you won’t know where everyone ends up until later
Since you’re not planning your main character arcs in advance, you may have to go back and strengthen them during the editing process
Without a detailed chapter outline, you may find your first draft falls short or goes over your ideal word count (most novels should be between 70,000 and 90,000 words)
Your characters may take off in all sorts of unseemly directions, and you’re left scrambling to catch up
Many writers like to use the flashlight method while also making notes on plot points that occur later in the story. The great thing about this type of writing process is you can be as detailed or as flexible as you need to—you’re in charge.
How to apply the flashlight method to your story
Ready to get your creative juices flowing? Here are a few tips to keep in mind when finding your way through the darkness.
Start with a main character
Your protagonist drives the entire story, and they’re where the plot begins—either by taking an action, or by having something happen to them which changes their world forever. Start by asking yourself: who is this person? What are they working towards? What’s holding them back? What’s the one thing that would mess up their life more than anything else?
Drop them into a challenging situation and see what happens. Then, use the next few chapters to introduce your other main characters—friends, family, enemies, frenemies, people that will help and hinder your protagonist along their way.
Flesh out your worldbuilding
You’ll find shining a light into your story much, much easier if you can clearly see the world that you’re in. In genre fiction like fantasy, science fiction, or historical fiction, “worldbuilding” refers to the distinct parameters of where your story takes place, what unique features and challenges exist within this place, and what can and cannot happen inside its (figurative, or not) walls.
But even if you’re writing something like a contemporary romance set in the world you walk through every day, you’ll still need to clearly establish what sort of settings your story exists in and what these settings contribute to the story. For instance, do your characters meet in a café, a library, a racetrack, in the wake of a political or natural disaster? What sort of rules and social or cultural framework do your characters exist in?
All of these will make your story more lifelike and make it easier to find your way into the natural character development and events of the plot. (And guess what? We have a whole lesson on worldbuilding, complete with a workbook template, just for you!)
Use the “three steps forward, one step back” rule
The key to flashlight outlining is to always stay one step ahead… but not so far ahead that you lose sight of what’s happening in the here and now. To do this, try using the 3:1 trick.
When you start writing, create a skeletal outline of your first three chapters. This will give you your exposition (where are we, who are we, and why your reader should care), your central characters, and the first key plot point that kicks things into motion (ie. your inciting incident). Then, when you finish chapter two—when you have one chapter of your outline left ahead of you—see if you can plan out the next three chapters: four through six.
Keep doing this every time you have one chapter left. Once you finish chapter five, plan out chapters seven through nine, and so forth. This allows you to always have a clear path ahead of you, while still giving you the space to change stuff up if you hit an unexpected turn.
Keep in mind, these numbers are only a guideline. The flashlight method is designed to give you as much information as you need. If you find you know where the next five chapters are headed, go ahead and mark those out. If you only know what to expect from the next two chapters, don’t stress; just keep moving forward, and the story will reveal itself to you as you go.
However, keeping a rhythm of three to one will provide you with a good balance of stability and flexibility.
Other outlining methods for building your story
Easy, right? But if you’re craving a detailed outline of your whole novel, or if you just feel more comfortable with a little more structure, check out these other outlining methods for finding your way into a story.
The snowflake method is a fast favourite among plantsers (plotter-pantsers), and it’s similar to the flashlight method in that it allows your story to grow organically from a basic idea. The difference is that unlike the flashlight method, the snowflake method involves mapping out a detailed outline before you actually start writing.
To plot a story using the snowflake method, you create a loose, simple picture of your whole story with a few basic points. Then, you go back to the beginning and add more detail to each point. This is meant to imitate the circular way in which a snowflake forms around its center.
You keep going around your idea, crystallising each plot point as you go. And by the end of it… you have an entire book!
You can check out our detailed lesson on how to craft a story using the snowflake method here.
Three- or five-act structure
The three-act structure, and its close cousin the five-act structure, are classic, reliable story shapes that have worked for centuries. These involve a series of essential plot points that begin with the inciting incident, carry through a string of progressive complications (also known as the rising action), and power all the way to the explosive climax.
These story structures give writers an easy way to mark out the direction of a story. You can take these predetermined plot points and transpose them onto a chapter outline, which gives you the overall shape of your novel (act structures even work for a short story, too!).
By using these plot structures, you know right from the beginning that your story will have all the right pieces in place to engage your reader. This is ideal for a first novel while you’re still getting a sense of how stories are put together.
If you’re ready to start writing from an act-structure outline, take a look at our dedicated lessons on building a story in the three-act structure and five-act structure.
Another way to get your story idea going is to use a classic plot archetype. These are recurring frameworks that many of our beloved classic stories follow. One of the most famous of these frameworks is the Hero’s Journey, a story structure that follows a set of narrative points as a hero goes on—you guessed it—a journey.
This might be a literal journey (The Hobbit, for example, follows the Hero’s Journey structure), or it might be an internalised journey of self discovery. There are other story archetypes you can use, too, depending on which direction you want to take and what lessons you want your protagonist to come away with. These are great tools for getting unblocked if you’re not sure what direction to take next, as well as for developing your idea from the ground up.
We have a dedicated lesson on writing a Hero’s Journey story, and you can also look at a range of other story archetypes here.
Use the flashlight method to kick off your writing process
The flashlight method is the simplest form of outlining a story. It begins with a single idea and gives you just enough planning to keep you away from the dreaded plot cliff, but also allows you the freedom to discover the big picture as you go. Many great stories have come out of this process of discovery, and now you can use this method to start writing your own.